Kevin Gorman: If that's football, Steelers are out of luck
NEW ORLEANS –
The Pittsburgh Steelers responded to their 31-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints with a shrug and a half-hearted smile, sticking to a stock answer to explain how they allowed another game slip away.
The Steelers said it over and over, as if the outcome was in the hands of the football gods instead of slipping out of the hands of Stevan Ridley and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers repeated it as if it were their mantra in a season with a tie and five losses by seven points or less.
“That’s football: You can be skillful as you want on both sides of the ball and special teams,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “There is still an element of luck involved in football.”
Before you start buying into the belief that if it wasn’t for bad luck the Steelers wouldn’t have any, this is a reminder the team with the best record in the NFL needed a prayer (and a couple of controversial pass-interference penalties) to win Sunday in the Superdome.
But the Steelers wouldn’t blame officiating for the defeat that allowed the Baltimore Ravens to seize control of the AFC North heading into the final week of the season. Nor should they have, considering they knew their playoff circumstances before kickoff.
The Steelers didn’t lose to the Saints because of two pass-interference penalties on cornerback Joe Haden — the hero against New England a week prior — or the fourth-quarter turnovers that allowed Drew Brees to engineer a touchdown drive that ended eerily reminiscent of how the Steelers beat Baltimore 10 years ago to clinch the division title.
They lost because of how they responded to those plays, by failing to capitalize on their chances. They answered a special-teams success on L.J. Fort’s blocked field goal with a special-teams screw-up when Roosevelt Nix was stopped short on a fake punt.
They lost because they followed the first pass interference on Haden — a phantom penalty if there ever was one — by allowing a touchdown and then coming up short at the Saints 13 and settling for a field goal. They lost because they followed Haden’s second pass interference penalty by allowing Ted Ginn Jr. to catch a 25-yard pass on a third-and-20.
They lost because Smith-Schuster got selfish, fighting for extra yards instead of moving onto the next play in Saints territory to set Chris Boswell up for a game-tying field goal in the final minute.
The Steelers lost not because of one of those shortcomings but the combination of them. They lost because it has been a recurring theme that has cost them in close games and could now cost them a playoff berth. They couldn’t do what Baltimore did against the Chargers: Win a game on the road against a superior opponent when it was necessary.
“We had our chances, surely, in the football game,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We overcome some adversity, some of it created by us. We did not make enough plays in the end. We accept responsibility for that. We acknowledge that.”
What the Steelers need to acknowledge is they lost once again because of a belief they can always pull out a victory in the final minute like last season. They have believed this, even as the Browns and Chiefs and Broncos and Chargers and Raiders and, now, the Saints have proved them wrong time after time this season.
“Crazier things have happened, but that’s football,” left guard Ramon Foster said. “You’ve got to be not the best fourth-quarter team. You’ve got to be the best for the entire (game) or at least be able to finish it out. We just did not do that.
“I know everybody’s going to look at the situational plays, the fumbles and stuff, but there were so many missed opportunities … You can’t criticize anybody. There were so many bad plays by each individual guy that there’s no one bad play.”
No, just a bad season, and one that has spun out of the Steelers’ control. They go into the season finale knowing they not only have to beat the Cincinnati Bengals next Sunday at Heinz Field but need Cleveland to beat the Ravens in Baltimore, where the Browns have won four times since 1999 and only once in the past decade.
The Steelers know they have a slim chance to qualify as a wild card, but only if they win and Indianapolis and Tennessee tie. Crazier things have happened, but that’s asking to be suited for a strait jacket.
“A lot of guys in that locker room are taking it hard,” Roethlisberger said. “If they weren’t, I’d be more worried.”
So, the Steelers are taking this loss hard in the Big Easy, as they should be. I’d be more worried if it was just football. It runs deeper than that. The Steelers have sabotaged a season in which they were 7-2-1 by a false sense of security, believing it’s just football and they can turn it on at any time.
They have given us little reason, let alone faith, to believe things can go their way at the end. Skillful as they are, the Steelers are down to relying on luck in a season where they might just have run out of it.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.